An 1835 illustration from the New York Sun of life on the moon.

CONNECTIONS: A brief history of fake news

From editors blatantly trying to sell papers by any means to columnists courting readers to publishers trying to shape national policy, the people believe the fake news as readily as they believe the truth.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Donald Trump did not invent fake news.

On August 26, 1835, the New York Sun reported the discovery of life on the moon. After that, it was a short step to report existence of a telescope powerful enough to view the moon’s surface. Accompanying the article was a rendering of what they saw. The ploy worked; the Sun’s sales rose exponentially. The man who invented the “news,” Sun editor Richard Adams Locke, was amazed that anyone believed it.

Remember the Maine? Of course you do; it was the proximate cause of the war with Spain in 1898. “Remember the Maine” was the literal battle cry. You probably do not remember that it was fake news. On Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, killing the 260 American sailors aboard. There ends the facts; no one has ever determined what caused the explosion. Unfazed, William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) and Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) saw the opportunity. They blamed Spain and started a war.

An artists’s depiction of the explosion of the USS Maine

It was not just “yellow journalists” who mangled the truth. Respected columnist H. L. Menken, when asked “Why do you tell lies like that?” replied, “It made a good story, didn’t it?”

From unicorns on the moon to stealth bombers, people do believe fake news. From editors blatantly trying to sell papers by any means to columnists courting readers to publishers trying to shape national policy, the people believe the fake news as readily as they believe the truth.

While similar, that is not quite what is happening today. Trump did not invent fake news, but he gives it a modern spin. He doesn’t make up the news; he simply labels the truth as lies. He is not selling papers; he is selling himself and his singular view of reality. He is “fighting back” against anyone he feels attacked him or did not sufficiently respect him. Why do it with fake news?

Consider early Pittsfield. The population was less than 2,000; most residents were farmers, not merchants; the condition of the roads was terrible, the closest post office was in Springfield and mail was delivered into Berkshire County only when there was “sufficient inducement” for someone to make the trip. It is remarkable that anyone thought they could start a newspaper, and yet there was a newspaper as early as 1787. With little hope for advertising revenue and less hope for reliable delivery, the first issue appeared Oct. 23, 1787.

It was called the American Centinel. Its masthead read: “Here you may travel the world from pole to pole; Increase your knowledge and delight your soul.” Probably promising more than it could deliver, the American Centinel survived a brief 19 months and closed in May 1789. Yet it was filled with reports of momentous events.

Image courtesy

One month before the launch of the Centinel, on Sept. 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was completed and disseminated. The battle was engaged: it had to be ratified by each of the 13 colonies. There was no American citizen or American newspaper without an opinion on ratification. While the states considered whether to become part of the union, the American Centinel churned out copy. Blatantly Federalist, the Centinel urged the creation of the United States and adoption of the federal constitution as the law of the land: “Thus will America be a second time rescued from desolation and confusion” and “all united…shall seek the general good.”

Debate about ratifying was more contentious in Massachusetts than one might think. The vote to ratify was 187–168, not an overwhelming majority. Through it all, in its 10-by-15-inch paper, the Centinel gave space to both sides of the issue. Publisher E. Russell did so because he “was seeking the common good.” That was unusual in early America. At the beginning of our country, newspapers made their political affiliations part of their mastheads. Three newspapers in our area were called the Hampshire Federalist, the Berkshire County Republican and the Berkshire County Whig. They enthusiastically slanted the news in favor of their political beliefs and energetically slammed their political rivals. What their arguments lacked in clarity, or sense, they made up for in heat. The Centinel gave even coverage to both sides and stood apart. While proponents were painting images of utopia, opponents were sowing seeds of fear.

One bit of fear mongering was: “If the states were united, the new country would crown George Washington king; once again we will be subjects, not citizens.”

Fomenting fear to drive policy is a political technique older than the country. Exaggeration, scandal-mongering and sensationalism have been part of the news from the beginning, and have always and invariably done two things: sold papers and sowed division. There were, however, sacred cows. No one exposed secrets that threatened our safety – at least not without consequence. Everyone respected the institutions and offices of our government and stopped short of challenging them. Representatives of the three branches of government and the fourth estate each played their role and fought to preserve the checks and balances. Then, fake news and the claim of fakery did not threaten our form of government; does it now?